Terps assistant Scott Spinelli deserves credit for team's success

Terps assistant coach Scott Spinelli walks off the court at Comcast Center after the team's 65-62 loss to Florida State.
Terps assistant coach Scott Spinelli walks off the court at Comcast Center after the team's 65-62 loss to Florida State. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun)

In his mind, Scott Spinelli can see himself calling the play. It's like a dream unfolding in slow-motion.

The Maryland men's basketball assistant coach closes his eyes and visualizes Terps guard Terrell Stoglin with the ball in the final seconds of regulation in a tie game at Miami last season. The defender, Durand Scott, stumbles and Stoglin — rather than driving past him as Spinelli hopes — pulls up and misses a 3-pointer. The Terps eventually lose in double overtime in a game in which Spinelli took over after head coach Mark Turgeon's ejection in the second half.

Almost a year later — as the Terps (13-2, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) prepare to face Miami (11-3, 2-0) again Sunday night — the loss still stings for Spinelli.

He remembers most games this way, as if key moments were endlessly looping in his head. It's part of what he loves about basketball — how it consumes him.

Spinelli's experience — from nearly a dozen jobs at prep schools, at mid-major colleges, at major colleges, in the International Basketball League and in the NBA, where he served as a scout — makes him the perfect right-hand man for Turgeon.

Passionate like Turgeon, he's a key recruiter and teacher for the Terps, often preparing scouting reports on opponents. But there is a sense that his career arc is incomplete because he hasn't fulfilled his ambition of becoming a college head coach.

"We kid around," Spinelli said of he and Turgeon. "Coach says if we had just won that [Miami] game, 'You'd be a head coach right now.'"

Spinelli, 46, is a like an understudy in a play. He knows all the lines, but he mostly watches somebody else deliver them.

"He has it. Scott has it. It's just him finding an [athletic director] that understands him during the interview process," Turgeon said. "He has a great basketball mind. I've been around a lot of good ones — he's as good as any I've been around."

Against the Hurricanes, Turgeon was ejected with 7:28 left in regulation for arguing an offensive foul on Nick Faust, giving Spinelli his first and only opportunity of the season to take over during a game. Maryland trailed by 14 points at the time.

As Turgeon sat in the locker room receiving texts about the game from his wife and friends, Spinelli said he ran the team the way his boss would have. After working with Turgeon for six years — at Maryland, Texas A&M and Wichita State — Spinelli knows Turgeon's philosophies as well as anybody.

His red tie askew, Spinelli was animated on the sideline in last year's game against Miami. At practices, he'll bound around the court, clapping his hands. He often works with players on technique — bending his knees, for example, to mimic a proper defensive stance.

"He'll let you know what you need to know," said Terps freshman Seth Allen, who was recruited by Spinelli. "Coach Turgeon is yelling and stuff. He [Spinelli] will take you to the side and talk to you, so you don't keep your head down."

And he often makes the team laugh.

"Hilarious," said freshman center Shaquille Cleare, who said the players enjoy watching Spinelli's frenetic energy.

Against Miami, Spinelli said, he was Turgeon's "substitute teacher."

At the end of regulation, "Durand Scott actually hit [Stoglin's] elbow on the shot," Spinelli said. "It doesn't matter. He still should have driven it. Maybe it would have been an NIT win for us if we win that game."

Turgeon says Spinelli "made a lot of good decisions [against Miami]. He ran one play too much, so I couldn't run it the rest of the year. It was heavily scouted after that."

Apprised of Turgeon's comments, Spinelli laughs loudly.

"He's right," the assistant says. "It was a play with Terrell that we ran and the guys executed really well."

The Terps didn't make the NCAA tournament or NIT in 2011-12. This season, Maryland fans' hopes were raised by a 13-game winning streak that ended with a loss to Florida State on Wednesday night.

Turgeon had planned to start a big lineup Sunday night -- including freshman Shaquille Cleare, who is 6 feet 9, at center and 7-1 sophomore forward Alex Len -- to combat Miami's size.

But Cleare suffered lower back spasms at practice Saturday. He won't start but is expected to play.

Some of the credit for this season's turnaround must go to Spinelli, who has a history of landing top players as a recruiter. He was the point man for recruiting a handful of current Terps.

Spinelli, who has a thick Boston accent and grew up an hour away from the city, recruited freshman Jake Layman and transfer Evan Smotrycz, who are both from Massachusetts. He also recruited Allen, transfer Logan Aronhalt and forward Damonte Dodd, who will enter the program next season. Smotrycz is is not eligible this season because of transfer rules.

Spinelli's outgoing personality — he is a natural storyteller — contributes to his recruiting successes. As an assistant under then-Nebraska coach Barry Collier, he landed All-Big 12 center Aleks Maric. At Texas A&M, he was the primary recruiter of Khris Middleton, now with the Detroit Pistons.

When Maryland hired Turgeon in 2011, there was sentiment among some Texas A&M players that Spinelli — who is particularly passionate about teaching pressure defense — should be tapped to lead the Aggies.

"We felt that he should have been our coach at A&M," Middleton said. "They all believed in him."

But Texas A&M hired former Murray State head coach Billy Kennedy. Spinelli, who is married with three young children, joined Turgeon in College Park.

Maryland is Spinelli's 11th stop, beginning as the head coach of a New York prep school. He met Turgeon early in his career at a coaching retreat.

All of the stops have made a mark on Spinelli and his family.

"We have a very strange house because I have this strong East Coast accent and my daughter and my sons have this Texas twang [from his four years at Texas A&M]," Spinelli said. "She [the daughter] will say, 'Dang!' "

If Spinelli lacks anything from his basketball past, it's the sort of pedigree that would give him an opportunity at a ready-made head coaching job. He is self-made as a coach — just as he was when he walked on as a player at Boston University in the late 1980s and earned a scholarship from coach Mike Jarvis.

"He was a tough, hard-nosed, hard-working and very smart player," said Jarvis, who now coaches at Florida Atlantic. "There are not too many walk-ons that make it, and not too many that get scholarships."

Spinelli said he loves Maryland.

"We're on the path," he says of this season's team. "Who knows? This could be a fun year."

But Jarvis said he hopes somebody is "smart enough" to soon land Spinelli as a head coach.

"A guy like myself really isn't from a pedigree," Spinelli said. "I was not from one of those coaching trees, per se. I was treeless."

His friends say Spinelli has more than paid his dues.

Ten years ago, Spinelli was on a recruiting trip to Australia to recruit Maric for the Cornhuskers.

"I get into my [hotel] room and the red light was blinking. The message was to call the Nebraska office right away. They said: 'Listen, you need to call home right away.'"

It turned out that Spinelli's father had suffered a stroke and was brain dead. Spinelli headed back to the United States to find his father, who died soon afterward, on life support in Worcester, Mass.

But first, Spinelli said, he had time to meet Maric and watch him play.

"We ended up getting the young man [to attend Nebraska]," Spinelli said. "But I wouldn't wish all that on my worst enemy."



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